"Laugh-out-loud funny in a way that’s unexpected for a documentary about a deceitful, dying meth-addict magician on his final fumbling tour."Fionnuala Halligan, Screendaily
It's the least obscure of scenes. A warm Australian afternoon and a room full of faded 501's and pilled pastel polo shirts; 'Hey Hey It's Saturday' had been running for some 20-years and the Amazing Johnathan; headband holding back spilling (although thinning) locks; is introduced to a table of obscure magic props and a spattering of applause drowned out by an enthusiastic pipe band. "Aren't they terrific" Johnathan announces, though his face tells otherwise. Core to the comedy of The Amazing Johnathan; inspirer of many and follower of few; is that he is one step ahead, says what he means but hardly means what he says. While his on-stage personality brought him to his comedic peaks, it was saddening to many; including the likes of Weird Al Yankovic and Eric Andre; when The Amazing Johnathan announced he had a heart condition that left him with only a single year to live. Enter, Ben Berman.
Making his start in Los Angeles working alongside Eric Wareheim of 'The Tim and Eric Show'; and having worked with some of the best of the likes of Zach Galifianakis, Berman spent his early career working with LA comics and fine-tuning his art in short films. His prominence in the directors chair coming with short films like 'I'm a Mitzvah' which earned Sundance Selection, and 'How to Lose Weight in 4 Easy Steps'. We had the pleasure of sitting down with the man who made his feature length debut with the premiere of 'The Amazing Johnathan Documentary' at Sundance this year. While he will tell you that there's tonnes different, but it's all just the same when going from making short film to a documentary - this doesn't account for the complexities of shooting a documentary about a master of deception with a clock put on his mortality.
"In the movie I'm like an investigative journalist right, it would almost be wrong for me and for my audience not to ask certain questions that I think need to be asked - so its kind of part of the job to ask those questions, and I'm okay with that."
WG: So to kick things off, can you tell us about the difference in your process and your mindset when shifting from short films to filming feature length documentaries?
BB: Well, there's tonnes! but its all the same.. a feature length something; either scripted (which I haven't done yet, it's certainly on the agenda) or otherwise; I think it's just about making it larger and thinking of slightly different things for keeping people engaged for that long, and taking them on a slightly longer journey. If you're great at making a good short film, you're probably going to be good at making a great feature; you're just going to have to do more of it. But going from scripted to documentary; in my experience; was extremely helpful, you have to find out [with a documentary] how you are going to tell that story; you can't just shoot a bunch of footage and just present that footage to an audience and expect them to appreciate it and be engaged, so there are some similarities between what I've done with scripted projects and what I did with this doc.
WG: Well you couldn't come farther from anything scripted with this documentary, right, it seemed there were changes at every turn, was that the same in the production process for this film?
BB: Yea! Totally I mean what you see is what you get. I set out; and at the beginning it was all very low stakes; to make a documentary with my time off from work about Johnathan, who I had heard about, who was taking drugs and was ill; I thought "Oh this will make an interesting fifteen minute doc" about an older magician confronting mortality and all of that stuff. So I started gathering footage and filming footage for that; and then a whole lot of other things presented themselves and I was like "Oh damn I wanna follow that through!" So what I set out to make; even though I wasn't that conscious of a big "Here's what I wanna do" plan; definitely shifted away from anything than I could ever originally imagine.
WG: Yeah so what we saw was a surreal honesty, I was sitting there wondering what it might be like confronting a guy like Johnathan about his illness and the realities of how people perceive his illness?
BB: I mean yeah I was definitely nervous and the scene you're talking about was a big moment for the movie and I knew that, not only did I need the answers and I kind of needed to do it for answers sake, but I needed to do it for the movie! So there was like this double pressure of how is this guy going to react, this guy, my friend Johnathan who I have been around for years now, how is he going to react to me bringing this up, but also how is this going to play into the movie? Was it going to get me closer to the ending, whatever ending I needed? So yeah there was a bunch of pressure, especially to have to question someone like that.
JB: I guess people will have to watch to find out about that scene...
BB: Yeah for sure, but in the movie I'm like an investigative journalist right, it would almost be wrong for me and for my audience not to ask certain questions that I think need to be asked - so its kind of part of the job to ask those questions, and I'm okay with that.
He pauses for a second when he checks if he is okay with that, Ben being one of the most comfortable conversationalists I've met, just had to check if this was all good with his own psyche. "The Amazing Johnathan Documentary" does follow the Amazing johnathan, supported by contributors like Criss Angel, Weird Al Yankovic, Eric Andre, and even Berman's own father, and everything that comes along with the charisma of a comedic magician at a medical low. But as you settle into the movie you understand tthat this becomes a little bit greater than that by the second, and all of a sudden it is longer just about "The Amazing Johnathan" or mortality or human nature or death. Slowly, grey area takes over. Berman, while admitting he took charge of the documentary narrative a little bit saying "it's not like I'm like bragging about that because that was never the intention", helped us to understand that you can't let the prescription for a project get in the way of a good story.
BB: Yeah think, yeah I'm okay with upsetting some people to get answers - I think that's what it has to be and I am okay with that.
He was all good with it.
'"A big theme of the movie is me trying to figure out what's truth and what's illusion. Whats real and what's not right? and even after the movie like I still don't know in every scenario what was real and what wasn't"
WG: So you consider this man a friend now after these few years? What is he like, he comes across a bit of a dick... are you guys still mates?
BB: Yeah yeah he's um... he's like a lot of people but just magnified. He's like me in a way, like I can be a dick to someone and be a little selfish, but then I can turn around and be very kind and generous and provide someone with a lot and offer them a lot and be very nice to them. I think Johnathan is like that but just a little more heightened, when he's a dick he can really be a dick and when he's selfish he can really be selfish, and when he's nice he can really be incredibly generous.
WG: Sounds a lot like this movie...
BB: Yeah I think him and I very early on fell into a pretty good relationship on the surface. He's really funny, and says weird and funny things, I mean I was in my early thirties while making the movie, and Johnathan had just turned 60 or 61 or something like that, so we had this pretty big age gap, but we relate to each other as equals or as kids - like he's basically a kid! He doesn't think through things all that much like an adult does too. But overall we were really friendly while making the movie and even when I knew he was kind of, sliding me, or putting the other crew over me, to maintain access you need to not just blow it up. Like I couldn't have been like "Dude, Fuck you!" and then expect him to want to film the next day. It's definitely a balancing act that a filmmaker has to work with.
WG: Yeah I mean he seemed like a bit of a kid when he would just say what he thought, and would look around just to kind of see the reactions of people in the room as if he were learning how to socialise for the first time and this must create some great stories - was there anything about him that didn't quite make it to the film that sort of related to his quirkiness?
BB: Um, probably! When I'm asked what we either filmed or edited that we couldn't fit in it's actually less about Johnathan and more about my journey. We had a lot of weird fun with my journey like there was this one scene [that didn't make the film] where I went to a cardiologist - not Johnathans' heart doctor because I wasn't given access to that person, but a cardiologist in LA, and I interviewed that cardiologist just to ascertain from him what the realities of Johnathans' illness would be, and the likelihood of survival after so many years. But the funny thing we found in that scene is that we went with the objective of finding out about Johnathan and the effects meth can have on ones heart, but we ended up talking to the cardiologist more about his thoughts on the current nature of documentary film and just filmmaking and docs in general, and I just told him about my problems as opposed to Johnathans health - which kind of showed my fixation on being the best doc filmmaker. It was a really funny scene that got cut.
The meandering nature of the story in this documentary; while structured in its technique; is what ties you in and binds you like the doc equivalent of a page turner. Throughout the making of the movie; and partly explaining why the original title for the film was "The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary"; Berman would ask Johnathan, "What do you think we should title this movie?" every few months throughout filming, to see an on camera documentation of tracking his journey and if his thoughts had changed.
WG: It seemed like Johnathan was quite; not fixated on having an amazing documentary made about him; but he had this grandiose opinion of his own doc and what that would look like, and kind of developed this strange attitude towards the idea of his own documentary?
BB: Yeah I think Johnathan... I don't he actually needed or wanted a really great documentary. I think; if we are all being very honest; his drive was to just have or just be able to tell people that someone, or many people, are making a documentary. it was just about bragging rights basically, the more people he brought on the more he would be able to tell people "Look! How special must I be because I've got all these people making a film on me" it was just kind of a bragging right - he didn't really think about the quality even it was just this thing for him.
WG: Question off the record... did you actually smoke meth with Johnathan?
BB: Haha! Well that can be on the record too because I'm not going to actually tell you! I mean there is a good answer I give, like the Q&A answer to that, because I always get that question, is that a big theme of the movie is me trying to figure out what's truth and what's illusion. What's real and what's not right? And, even after the movie like I still don't know in every scenario what was real and what wasn't - so to answer your question, we still don't know.
A cheeky smile split across Berman's face as he knew I had both not gotten the answer I wanted, but had what I was after all the same. As his self-deprecating humour kicked in "the dumbfounded face comes naturally to me" - an often seen picture of confusion in this documentary - Berman looked reflective on the experience. Much is to be said about confronting illusion, mortality, and becoming the best doc maker, all in one, and "The Amazing Johnathan" doesn't come short of its own expectations, as there was no way to compare the finished product; the Sundance Documentary entrant; to those 'expectations' set before it. For a director just hitting the ground running, we only wish the very best for what is next.
Get along to see this awesome documentary, it's something a little different this film festival, if you need to pick something out of your usual box, make it this one, you won't regret it.
Screening times for Auckland here
Title image: Ben Berman pushes The Amazing Johnathan - credit Rolling Stone